Friday, 4 November 2011

7 billion and counting...

Well, someone is, apparently. I don't know how they're counting the number of people on the planet, but according to the announcements in the news over the last week or so, this number is now seven billion. SEVEN BILLION. Did they herald the arrival of this particular soul with banners and balloons and cheesy grins all around?

When I was born in 1970 there were about half that amount. In 1900, the world population was about 1.6 billion, meaning the time it has taken to double has approximately halved. These are really quite astonishing and scary statistics. Official projections seem to suggest the population will reach about 9 billion in 2050 before starting to reduce. I'm not sure how they "know" that either.

All this makes me wonder about the dire warnings that a certain Thomas Robert Malthus made back in 1798, where he suggested that eventually famine and disease would check population growth. He didn't reckon with things like the industrial revolution and the use of oil, both of which made agriculture infinitely more efficient and allowed the food supply to grow so quickly. Nor did he predict the advances in medicine that would reduce infant mortality rates and increase life-spans. I guess we can let him off as he didn't have a crystal ball or a handy Nostradamus kicking about.

On the other hand, maybe his predictions will come to be true in time. After all, this planet is a finite, pretty-much closed system with finite resources. Have we passed Peak Oil? We can only keep growing for so long, surely. Maybe science will find some other way to cheat nature again for a while, but eventually something like a plague will do for us, if we don't do ourselves in with our stupid fighting or polluting first. Maybe an asteroid will hit us, killing off large swathes of the population. I think about this kind of thing at night, keeping myself awake. That's just the way I am. I worry about stuff; I always have, and now that I have children I worry even more. What kind of world will they grow up in?

Of course, I think the worst thing that we could do is even start to entertain any notions of population control or reduction. Such measures would amount to genocide. There are massive differences in levels of wealth, education and culture, and some might think they have a right to decide who is worthy and who is worthless, but this is dangerous ground. Don't even go there.

One book I read a few years still resonates strongly with me. It's called "Ishmael" and was written by Daniel Quinn. It basically tells the story of how man came to believe it had dominion over the Earth and all other living things and how the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago was a huge turning point in history which has lead to a profoundly sick civilisation where we live completely at odds with nature. It's certainly food for thought. Of course, it wouldn't be sensible to promote a return to caveman-style living, it's not practical and I look terrible in a loin cloth. Still, I do think we should think more about how we exploit the world around us, including other living things.

Excuse me now. I'm off to hug a tree.

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